Written by Stephen King
Directed by George A. Romero
A Warner Brothers Picture
Starring: Hal Holbrook (Henry Northrup); Adrienne Barbeau (Wilma Northrup); Carrie Nye (Sylvia Grantham); Ed Harris (Hank Blaine); Fritz Weaver (Dexter Stanley); Leslie Nielson (Richard Vickers); Ted Danson (Harry Wentworth); Stephen King (Jordy Verrill); Viveca Lindfors (Bedelia Grantham); E.G. Marshall (Upton Pratt); Tom Atkins (Stan); Gaylen Ross (Becky Vickers); Joe Hill King (Billy)
By the 1980s, horror films had gone through many periods and permutations. We’d had established monsters in the 30s, big bugs in the 50s, Poe and a second crack at those lovable old monsters in the 60s, and the devil in the 70s quickly followed by homicidal maniacs wielding pointy things. The one thing that hadn’t really survived throughout the years was the horror anthology film: once a regular occurrence at the bottom of the double-bill (if there was ever an A-list horror anthology film during the 1960s, let me know) and the life blood of Hammer’s main competitor Amicus, the horror anthology died an ignoble death, crushed to atoms under the weight of clunky segments and eye-rolling framing devices.
But if you’ve read this far, you must know that, when it comes to horror films, nothing that’s dead stays dead forever.
If you were a horror fan in the 70s and 80s and weren’t watching scary films every waking moment of your day, chances are you had your nose comfortably planted in a book by Stephen King. Next to Elvis Presley, Stephen King may be America’s favorite success story; a poor boy raised by a single mother scrimped, saved, went to college and turned his favorite pastime into a book and movie-making venture that remains unsurpassed in American publishing. King gave the literate of the 1970s something to make them incredibly uneasy, and American readers wanted more, MORE and MORE! By the time the mid 1980s rolled around, King’s books were in practically every home and films based on King’s books were in practically every cinema. Although ranging in various stages of quality, no one could deny that King’s name on a film was a guaranteed money-maker. And for those of King’s loyal readership who had read and enjoyed his short story collection Night Shift (1978), it was only natural that some enterprising mind (King’s own, augmented by the equally-fertile imagination of zombie-king George Romero) would decide that the time was right for a resurrection of an old friend. In 1982, Creepshow, an anthology film made up of five of King’s short tales, made its debut and won a place in the hearts of horror fans everywhere.
Unlike so many other anthology films, the frame story of Creepshow is simplicity personified: the five stories are tales in a comic book (belonging to a creepy kid (Joe Hill King) and discarded by his overbearing father (Tom Atkins)) which come alive in beautiful live action and living color. In quick animated sequences, the comic book is whipped around by the night wind and the page it opens on gives us the opening shot of the next story. The format allows King’s imagination to run wild and he lets it drift towards the type of stories that DC comics published in his childhood and fueled his young nightmares. Only just approaching middle age, King displays the imaginary prowess of a schoolboy in the five tales that make up Creepshow. What’s more, the film displays a sharp humor in a genre that is often satisfied with ridiculous puns (am I the only one who dreads the interruptions of the Man In Black in old episodes of Innersanctum?).
We begin with “Father’s Day”, arguably the weakest episode in the film, but still filled with delights. In a film where the first thing the audience wants to know is “Who’s In It,” “Father’s Day” features a relatively low-key cast: Carrie Nye, Viveca Lindfors and a pre-stardom Ed Harris are the biggest names that the segment boasts and both King and Romero seem to know this, considering the execution. In a nutshell, Harris plays the newest addition to a rich family. On Father’s Day, they gather together and await the arrival of Aunt Bedilia (Lindfors) who apparently murdered her cruel father years before and assured her family’s financial security. After we watch this gaggle of spoiled assholes (and are treated to the worst dancing in cinema history, courtesy of young Mr. Harris), the episode shifts gears and gives us a marvelously sad/funny soliloquy by Viveca Lindfors, her Bedilia still feeling guilty for murdering her hideous father and making her case to a tombstone. The episode would have no emotional center were it not for Lindfors’ performance, alternately angry and guilt-ridden and thoroughly drunken. But a hand springing up through the earth (like DePalma’s adaptation of King’s Carrie a few years earlier), brings an end to her monolog and her life. As the episode continues, family members wander off to see what’s keeping Aunt Bedilia and encounter a lumbering corpse who wants nothing more than the cake he was denied when he was murdered on Father’s Day. The episode’s punch line, where Sylvia’s (Nye) head is used to fill in for the aforementioned cake, is a bit of a limp noodle, particularly in light of the ridiculous reactions of her surviving family (Elizabeth Regan and Warner Shook, who have thankfully never been seen anywhere outside of this film), and if the film had continued in this vein, it would never have entered the realm of great horror films. But things get better quite quickly…
The mostly comedic “Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill” features the man of the hour, Stephen King, in a mostly solo segment playing a New England bumpkin who finds a meteorite on his property. Greedy for the windfall he imagines will follow (visualized in the first of several hilarious dream sequences), Jordy gets overanxious and accidently breaks the stone, getting “meteor shit” on his hands. When he wakes the next morning (after literally vegetating in front of the television), he finds his skin sprouting weeds. And that’s pretty much all that happens for the next twenty minutes until Jordy, now a living mass of vegetation, blows his brains out with a shotgun. More than any of the other episodes, “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill” captures the feel of Romero’s first zombie film Night Of The Living Dead. The episode seems almost homemade, from its rural and lonely setting to the library music that grates on the ears. The novelty of seeing the obviously intelligent King playing a man who could be outwitted by a bowl of cornflakes keeps the audience laughing and intrigued. But with all the silly humor, Jordy is revealed to be a man incapable of make a good decision, bedeviled as he is by visions of his father and other authority figures telling him what to do (usually the wrong thing). Ultimately, Jordy is less a character than a vessel for the weed infestation to take hold of the land and head for Castle Rock. He is the first chapter of a novel that will never be written; it’s as if King said, “You know what will happen next. Do you really want to see a million other people suffer the same fate?” He’s quite right: Jordy was enough and the second segment of Creepshow satisfies any audience not put off by the silly needle drop score.
After the amateurish “Father’s Day” and creepy but comedic “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill,” audiences could not have been sufficiently prepared for “Something To Tide You Over.” No audience could have realized that they were about to see something fully anchored in horror when they realized that the segment starred Ted Danson and Leslie Neilson. In the few years preceding Creepshow, both actors had established themselves in mainstream comedy, Neilson in Zucker/Abraham/Zucker productions and Danson as the lead in the hit TV show Cheers (1982-1993). To see Danson playing the dramatic lead and Neilson excelling as the villain (not just of this episode but of the entire film) was a revelation. He exudes creepiness from the moment Danson sees half his face through his cracked-open door. Neilson plays Richard Vickers, an insanely jealous man who has discovered that his wife Becky (Dawn of the Dead’s Gaylen Ross) has been having an affair with Harry Wentworth (Danson). Richard’s plan, executed to perfection, involves burying both Harry and Becky up to their necks on the beach so that they’ll drown when the tide comes in. Richard is a mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch who admits that he never really loved his wife and is committing this horrific double-homicide because he always protects what’s his. Richard’s glee and smugness in the face of Harry’s genuine concern over Becky, calling him lover-boy and Becky’s “knight in shining corduroy” as he lures Harry closer and closer to the hole in the sand that will be his grave, would be infuriating were it not for the fact that Nielson’s closer association with comedy balances out his horrific actions. Nielson, also known for his dead-pan delivery in Airplane (1980), allows himself to laugh and grin like a lunatic. It’s difficult to choose what is worse, Harry and Becky’s death (particularly the shot of Danson’s head struggling to breathe underwater) or Richard’s sadistic glee while watching it on a video monitor (as well as the knowledge that he’s taping it so that he can watch it again later). The conclusion, where Richard gets his comeuppance at the hands of Harry and Becky’s shuffling waterlogged corpses, is really an anticlimax: Richard may be horrified by what comes shambling through his door, but the real monster looks back at him when he shaves in the morning. But it’s not important at this stage for the audience to be frightened by the water-zombies; the format of the “Tales From The Crypt” comics demands that Harry and Becky get their revenge, and Richard winds up buried on the beach, shouting “I can hold my breath for a LONG TIME!” The only shame of the segment is that it abandons Richard to his fate without allowing us to watch it as we watched Harry’s.
“The Crate,” which follows, is the film’s foundation segment, the reason why we paid our money and sat down in the first place. It has the best setup, the most developed characters, and is the most horrific story of the film. In the lower labs of a college, a janitor and a graduate student find an abandoned crate underneath a stairway, which prompts a call to Professor Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver). When the crate is opened, Dexter is horrified to witness both the janitor and the student killed and eaten by the creature inside. Panicked, he runs to his best friend Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook), who doesn’t dismiss Dexter’s wild story out of hand because he has an ulterior motive for his calm acceptance: for years, the mild-mannered Henry has been repressing an urge to murder his loud, drunken, bullying wife Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau), who forever brays, “Just call me Billie; everyone does.” After drugging Dexter, Henry hatches a plan to trick Wilma into providing the creature with one final course before bedtime.
The performances in “The Crate” are all excellent; Holbrook is the embodiment of seething resentment, the quiet and pleasant man who doesn’t know when his time will come but knows that it will come, and Weaver convincingly conveys near hysteria through most of his screen time, but the hands-down winner of the night is Barbeau, who has never been funnier as the viciously annoying Wilma. Her ugly fashion-sense, half-lidded eyes, profane vocabulary and fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice makes her a candidate for least sympathetic victim of the year. Every syllable she utters is hilarious and we, like Henry’s associates, can only look at Henry in sympathy (and thankfulness that we aren’t married to her). Like Basil and Syble Fawlty, we can imagine how these two ever wound up together (Did Henry used to be a drinking man and wind up with her one morning? Did he lose a bet? Did he win a chess game against a witch?). And while the monster in the crate is scary and the scenes of it tearing its victims apart are tough to watch, we feel no such anxiety when Henry pushes Wilma under the stairs to meet her fate. In fact, the only suspense comes when it looks like the creature won’t put in an appearance. And we must not forget Wilma’s wonderful dialog, particularly her “barnyard-exhibit” speech to Henry just before the creature shows up (“Piggy eyes… sheep friends… cow-shit for brains”). Stephen King is no slouch as a writer of dialog, but subsequent screenplays have shown that writing for the screen is not his particular forte. Thankfully, the muse was with him when he wrote Creepshow (and “The Crate” in particular).
Creepshow’s final segment (not counting the wrap-up of its frame story), features the great E.G. Marshall in “They’re Creeping Up On You.” Marshall plays Upton Pratt, a Hughes-like multi-millionaire businessman who keeps himself locked up in a supposedly germ-free apartment. Despite all his precautions, Pratt has got a bug problem; cockroaches continually creep up on him and he squashes them with the same relish that he gets when he squashes his business rivals, who are little better than bugs in his eyes. But as more and more bugs invade Pratt’s domain, he finds himself overwhelmed but creatures that may not be simple bugs but maybe a plague sent by the vindictive widow of his latest conquest.
Marshall gives a tour-de-force performance like no other he’s ever given (practically a solo performance except for a few voice actors and David Early as a custodian, the only person in the world who doesn’t take any shit from Pratt), his intellectually repressed characters from the past have given way to this miserable and petulant old fart, whose profanity gives Wilma Northrup a run for her money (“Go out and fuck somebody,” he says to a subordinate, “but wear a condom; everybody’s got the Goddamned herpes these days.”). And like Wilma (and unlike Jordy), Pratt has absolutely no redeeming qualities and we wait with near-impatience for this rotten bastard to get what’s coming to him. But for some viewers, Upton Pratt’s comeuppance is the most difficult of the film to watch. Fear of bugs (particularly cockroaches) is not a rare fear amongst the average film-goer, and this may be the reason why “They’re Creeping Up On You” was saved for last; the possibility existed that the film would’ve played to half-empty theaters if it had been moved earlier. While creatures from the crate, zombie grandfathers and killer weeds are things of the imagination, cockroaches are real. When Pratt finally falls to the roaches, they pour out of his mouth and nose and burrow out through his chest for no apparent reason except to horrify and disgust the audience. Maybe that’s another reason why “They’re Creeping Up On You” was saved for last; its final shock is not reserved for another character in the film but for us the audience. We are the ones the film is really after; like all horror films, the audience is the real target of the monster or the crazed killer, not the scantily-clad virgin. Pratt, Aunt Bedilia, Jordy, Harry, Becky and Wilma are all dead but we’ve survived the horror film and the eruption of Pratt’s corpses by roaches is one last attempt to break through our shells and show us how terrifying the world of cinema (or indeed the world of comic books) can be.
Creepshow ends with a fun coda (featuring an appearance by Tom Savini, the grand master of modern-day gore) that gives that rotten dad from the beginning of the film a good, old-fashioned “poke” for his troubles and the film comes full circle; the audience leaves entertained, laughed out and maybe a little bit creeped out as well. Creepshow’s cinematic legacy was nothing to be proud of: an inept sequel and a host of bad screenplays with Mr. King’s name affixed to the title page. But one cannot ultimately condemn a film for its idiot bastard children. Creepshow still scores on all fronts; it thrills, it scares, it makes us laugh. And what more can you ask of a film than that?